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  • Jacob Sweetman: All day and all of the knight

Berlin

Jacob Sweetman: All day and all of the knight

In one fell swoop the Sportsdesk manages to be rude about Lou Reed and The Guardian, defends the honour of Willy Brandt and wonders about whose finger is on the button. This week, of course, we talk chess.

Maybe you know Berlin because you live here or because you have just read another one of the endlessly gushing reviews in The Guardian about the best places to have brunch in Kreuzberg (which, by the way is nowhere. Brunch should not be made of solids. If you need more than fags and coffee at that time of the day then you can shut the door behind you on the way out). Or maybe you know Berlin only as the band who took gushing 1980s tepidity onto the world stage with “Take My Breath Away”, or as an album by Lou Reed (a man whose death meant that, at least, we wouldn’t have to wait another 45 years for a good record by him).

Now, the name Berlin just reminds me of chess. But we’ll come to that soon enough. First, a series of asides.

In the future Willy Brandt will be remembered as the man for whom the new airport at Schönefeld was named after. Of course, in terms of fitting tributes to great diplomats of our times, one might as well kick dirt in the faces of his grandchildren whilst pissing up against his gravestone, all the time affecting one of those comedy German accents pioneered by English TV sitcoms of the mid-seventies, but that is for later. Poor Willy Brandt probably deserves better. 

But he was a super canny politician, Brandt, and as the former Berlin mayor, and the West German chancellor at the time, he had to be at the Chess Olympiad in Siegen in 1970, because it was to be the starting blocks for one of the Cold War’s most defining sporting rivalries: Boris Spassky vs. Bobby Fischer. East vs. West. Communism vs. capitalism. All played out on a small wooden board divided in to 64 squares with 32 ornately carved wooden figures representing the forces of light and dark, of good and evil.

Spassky won that first battle, and according to the book Bobby Fischer Goes To War, was lucky to get away with a kiss from the Soviet ambassador, a man Brandt had nicknamed “Pincers” for his wicked tongue and permanently raging demeanour. He said that his “…powerful jaws sometimes snapped with a force suggestive of the intention to pulverise his words”. It is safe to say that Brandt was a little cautious around “Pincers”.

Chess is often overlooked, but in terms of drama, in terms of a drawn out struggle enabling as many cheap war metaphors as it has potential moves on the board (there are more potential moves in a game of chess than there are atoms in the observable universe) it is a godsend for the lazy sports writer. The Sportsdesk loves chess in the same way that it loves test cricket and the Tour de France. It slowly ratchets up the tension over days and days. It is about cumulative effects, about long term strategy and at its best, like when Fischer played Spassky for the world title in 1972, it is about politics.

At that same Olympiad in Siegen there were teams from both East and West Germany. Neither were ever going to stand a chance against the Russians or against the American prodigy who would later go on to become one the most offensive men in any sport, but, like in the football World Cup match in 1974 in Hamburg, they couldn’t countenance losing to their opposites, losing to the class enemy. The grandmaster (is that the only link between 1980s hip hop and chess?) Hans-Joachim Hecht has said of how lucky he was that chess enabled him to be leave East Berlin a week before the Wall went up, and would represent West Germany well into his dotage. But he also says of the pressure on the players not to even speak to their opposite numbers, most of whom were born in the same city and spoke the same language.

It was a weird time and chess reflected that as much as anything.

So, keeping an eye on the most recent world championship between Magnus Carlsen and Viswanathan Anand you would be forgiven in wishing that there could possibly have been a greater power struggle behind the match. Norway against India? Nah, nothing there. A young prodigy who was Cosmopolitan’s sexiest man of the year against an ageing legend of the game whose best days are behind him? Nah. We want conflict and deep rooted paranoia (apparently inherent in the best players), scandals, wire-taps and rows upon rows of tense men in suits, puffing away on endless fags in the corridors wondering if this was the day that someone would have to push the button.

And those who know these things – and the Sportsdesk is not one – were disappointed at the lack of spectacle. And why? It was Berlin’s fault. Or at least Carlsen’s reliance on the Berlin defence, the “Berlin Wall”, which took the fun (yeah, fun) out of it. Modern chess is derided for relying too heavily on computer analysis, bringing the very highest players together and removing the blurred lines of genius / insanity and Carlsen, and his reliance on the Berlin defence, is seen as the poster boy for this new chess.

Dennis Monokroussos wrote this for Chess News: “Few openings strike terror into the heart of a chess fan like the Berlin Defence. Using it like a virtuoso, Vladimir Kramnik not only won the World Chess Championship from Garry Kasparov, but also, simultaneously, succeeded in putting thousands of chess lovers into a coma-like state”

So when I now think of Berlin, I think of Carlsen and the new chess. And I hope that Norway comes to the brink of nuclear war while he has still got it. Cheers Magnus, I’d always thought this place was rather exciting until then.